New York City and Los Angeles, along with a string of smaller cities, are finally seeing their childhood obesity rates drop for the first time. The decline, though modest, has shocked researchers who have watched the obesity rate in children steadily climb for 30 years. Los Angeles’ rate has dropped 3 percent, while New York and Philadelphia both reported declines around 5 percent.
About 12.5 million children under 20 are obese, and the rate has tripled since 1980. Childhood obesity problems are usually concentrated in metropolitan areas, prompting several cities to launch anti-obesity advertising campaigns. Others have gone farther; Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I-NY) recently banned the sale of sugary drinks above 16 ounces. First Lady Michelle Obama has made childhood obesity her personal cause, coming under fire from Republicans and conservative commentators for her efforts to reform school lunch programs and promote healthy eating habits. Along with city policies, nonprofit groups have been working to get more fresh produce in urban corner stores and promote urban agriculture initiatives.
It is not clear why the rate is dropping or which, if any, of these measures have had an impact. However, all of the cities that are now seeing declines enacted anti-obesity policies several years ago. The most promising data comes from Philadelphia, which has introduced snack guidelines as well as removed sugary drinks and deep fryers from school cafeterias over the past decade:
Individual efforts like one-time exercise programs have rarely produced results. Researchers say that it will take a broad set of policies applied systematically to effectively reverse the trend, a conclusion underscored by an Institute of Medicine report released in May.[…]
Some experts note that the current declines, concentrated among higher income, mostly white populations, are still not benefiting many minority children. For example, when New York City measured children in kindergarten through eighth grade from 2007 to 2011, the number of white children who were obese dropped by 12.5 percent, while the number of obese black children dropped by 1.9 percent.
But Philadelphia, which has the biggest share of residents living in poverty of the nation’s 10 largest cities, stands out because its decline was most pronounced among minorities. Obesity among 120,000 public school students measured between 2006 and 2010 declined by 8 percent among black boys and by 7 percent among Hispanic girls, compared with a 0.8 percent decline for white girls and a 6.8 percent decline for white boys.
Philadelphia’s measured success could inspire other cities to start experimenting with obesity reduction policies. These policies could help shift the currently untenable status quo. If the state of American health remains the same, the number of children with type 2 diabetes is projected to rise 50 percent by 2050, while children who are already struggling with weight problems are far more likely to suffer from heart disease and stroke as adults.